by Max Marbut
“Brother, can you spare a dime?”
That question and others like it prompted the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission Thursday to approve a proposal to draft new legislation that if enacted by City Council would prohibit pay telephones on Downtown sidewalks.
A year-long study conducted by the City in collaboration with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the Public Works Department and Downtown Vision, Inc. concluded that one way to reduce panhandling and loitering — and even some drug crimes — might be to eliminate pay phones located on the public right of way and in public parks.
“The biggest challenge we have facing Downtown is making the streets walkable,” said JEDC Manager Karen Nasrallah. “The issue is nuisance crime. People don’t feel safe when they are panhandled or accosted.”
Michael Brunet from the JSO Legal Unit said pay phones can “act as a magnet to draw negative elements” as well as impair the JSO’s ability to enforce laws against activities like loitering. People loitering near pay phones often tell officers they are waiting for a phone call.
“(That) Gives them at least the outward appearance of being there for a legitimate reason which makes it very difficult to enforce the law,” said Brunet.
He also said the proposal is not to remove all the pay phones currently located Downtown, only the ones on the City right of way, “because that’s where the problems are occurring.” Of the 30 pay phones Downtown, 12 would be affected by the proposed legislation.
JSO Lt. Mike Bruno oversees the officers on the walking beat around Hemming Plaza and the Landing as well as the JSO Bicycle Squads.
“Business owners are constantly calling asking us to give them some relief from panhandlers and nuisance activity. This pay phone proposal is another piece of the puzzle to improve the image of Downtown as well as the safety of the citizens,” he said.
Removing pay phones from Springfield had a positive impact on Springfield, said JEDC Commissioner Jack Meeks, who has lived there for six years and has watched the neighborhood “come back.”
“It wasn’t one big thing, it was a series of steps,” said Meeks. “The corner of 3rd and Market (streets) used to be a corner for drugs, then they removed the pay phones and now there’s no one hanging around on the corner. It certainly had a positive impact.”
Also at the meeting was Bruce Renard, executive director of the Florida Public Telecommunications Association, a statewide legal, regulatory and legislative advocate for pay phone service providers. He said the proposal appears to be a “well-meaning initiative,” but added he has two problems with legislating pay phones installed on sidewalks.
“In my knowledge, this would be the first ban of pay phones. No other city in Florida has something like this,” said Renard. “Pay phones also provide an important service.”
He went on to say that in times of disaster, as in the case of the 9/11 terrorist attack or Hurricane Katrina, pay phones were the only means of communication for thousands of people since cell phone service and other land lines were inoperative. Renard also said public pay phones offer free 911 service and if people waiting for phone calls is an issue, providers could agree to block incoming calls under current Public Service Commission regulations.
Renard also responded to the issue of the pay phones located on the City’s right of way being there without a proper permit.
“If the City had a permitting system, the vendors would get permits, but there is no system,” he said. “Most other cities in Florida have pay phones downtown. We suggest there are less Draconian ways to address these issues (than legislation banning pay phones).”
DVI Executive Director Terry Lorince reported, “We have worked with JTA to put ‘no loitering’ signs on bus shelters. We’re not proud of it, but there are many ‘no trespassing’ signs on Downtown businesses so we can move people along. Our statistics prove a close correlation between pay phones and nuisance activity.”
Lorince said that DVI supports the proposed legislation because it would be “Part of the tool kit we have to make Downtown cleaner and safer.”
JEDC Executive Director Ron Barton pointed out that even with approval from JEDC, the process would still involve three public hearings as the proposed legislation makes its way through committee on its way to a vote by City Council, which would give the pay phone interests plenty of time to make their case.
With that, the commissioners unanimously approved the proposal to eliminate all pay phones in public right of ways Downtown.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, the JEDC approved adding an additional 755-acre tract to the Jacksonville International Airport Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) on the Northside.
Barton said the CRA was established in the early 1990s and has been a success, leading to the development of River City Marketplace as well as other projects and businesses in the area. He also predicted the CRA addition will be the site of more jobs for the Northside in the future due to its proximity to the port and access to the CSX rail line.